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Exploring identities through self-portraits

Exploring Identities Through Self-Portraits
Class project helps future teachers build safe, supportive K-12 classroom communities

Growing up in East Palo Alto, Calif., Miguel Fittoria ’12 came from a distressed community where high levels of crime and poverty were the norm. It was a neighborhood that, Fittoria says, has shaped his journey in life. 

“It’s where I started and I’m not ashamed of it,” says the 24-year-old human development master’s student, who earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and political science at the University of Rochester. “It will always be my home.”

With plans to return to his hometown someday and work toward a teaching credential in elementary education, Fittoria depicted representations of his upbringing in a recent self-identity reflection project that he completed as part of a course on race, class, gender, and disability in American education.

As part of a signature course at the Warner School focused on helping future educators understand diversity issues and eliminate practices of exclusion and inequality in schools, master’s students are asked to create a self-portrait representing their personal stories or life experiences. With the end goal of portraying their positions of identity—including race and ethnicity, language, class, gender, ability, and sexual orientation—in this class project, students like Fittoria successfully completed the task while simultaneously reflecting on how their life experiences continue to inform who they are today and what they do when they enter the classroom in the future.

According to Warner School Professor Ed Brockenbrough, who taught the summer session of EDU 442, these can be difficult topics to address. He uses the short mantra: “We teach who we are,” by teacher, writer, and activist Parker J. Palmer, in class as a way to frame the conversation around understanding the socially-constructed lines of race, class, gender, sex, and disability and how teachers’ identities, backgrounds, and experiences influence their pedagogies.

“My hope is that students complete this project with not only a better sense of who they are, but how their identities and past experiences impact their perspectives on and approaches to teaching and learning experiences in classrooms,” says Brockenbrough, who also directs the Urban Teaching & Leadership Program at Warner. “Engaging in this type of critical, ongoing self-reflection is crucial for educators who want to create inclusive classroom environments for all students. Before working on these themes with youth, it is important that these future teachers are comfortable with discussing these issues themselves.”

Fittoria, whose mother, also an educator, is from Mexico and father from Nicaragua, chose to portray his race, class, and gender in a paper mache hot air balloon portrait that represents his upward journey in life.

“I was always trying to get better and better at everything I did, so my life has been like a hot air balloon always on the rise,” says Fittoria who hopes to become a strong role model and teacher for kindergarten and first-grade students in a Spanish immersion program back home. “I want to show my future students that we should all be great in the classroom and everyone should be proud of where they came from and what they look like.”

The hot air balloon basket, which includes his hometown statistics on crime and graduation rates, signifies the onset of his journey in poverty.  The top of the balloon, filled with blank yellow space and a colossal blue question mark, represents all the unknown and exciting possibilities that the future holds for Fittoria. Everything in between is symbolic of his Hispanic culture and heritage and all that he accomplished as a child as he strived to be manly and become a successful leader.
Christopher BethmannGraduate student Christopher Bethmann ‘13, Oneida, Wolf Clan, is very grounded in his Native American beliefs and identity growing up. “Working hard and looking out for my family has always been important to me,” says Bethmann, who focuses on TESOL and foreign language education and is part of the Urban Teaching and Leadership Program.

That’s why Bethmann chose to represent race, class, and gender in his Gustoweh portrait. A traditional headdress worn by Iroquois men, the Gustoweh is symbolic of race and gender for Bethmann, who holds bachelor’s degrees in international relations and Spanish from the University of Rochester. And, to show how he feels about his middle-class upbringing, Bethmann added various significant objects—like his father’s service pins from Xerox and Kodak, his grandfather’s tie clip from the Vietnam War, and guitars to illustrate the musical talents and interests passed down in his family—to his final portrait.

Bethmann adds that the project helped him to explore many issues and themes covered in the class on a more personal level.

“It’s easy to read theory and think of theoretical frameworks, but when you apply these theories to your own life, it becomes more meaningful and helps you to get a perspective on how students in class are dealing with issues and searching for identities,” says Bethmann. “If you haven’t grappled with these issues yourself, you cannot discuss them in class. All of this will inform the approach you take in the classroom.”
Jessica GeorgeA vibrant and colorful body board was the foundation for Jessica George’s self-portrait. While studying abroad, George and two friends encountered a near-death incident when they were pulled out into the relentless Pacific Ocean. A body board, she says, saved their lives. Little did she know that this simple artifact from such a traumatic event, which allowed her to internalize the importance of mental health, would eventually become the focus of a class project.  

The left side of George’s board begins with her small rural hometown connection and the beginning of the construction of identity, particularly in terms of class and gender, for a younger George, who grew up in the countryside with fields and forests as her playground. The center of the board represents slightly older years, particularly during middle school, with a country road that bridges home and school, two aspects of George’s life that she has always valued. Lastly, the top right of her board signifies her constructed female identity and the bottom right signifies the cultural aspect of her life. Her interest in culture, which spawned in high school, led her to explore travel opportunities abroad, complete two undergraduate degrees in bilingual-multicultural education and health science from The College at Brockport, and pursue a master’s in TESOL education at Warner.

For students like George and Bethmann, the project allowed them to see how each position of identity intersects in their lives. “Each section of one’s identity is inseparable and cannot exist in isolation,” explains George, who used a tan cord on her board to cross all the pieces of her journey. “As an educator, I truly value the significance of personal histories and other cultures. People should not be viewed as lacking information, rather they should be viewed as funds of knowledge.”

George, who currently substitute teaches in several school districts in the Rochester area, also learned first-hand how her insight and introspective exploration of identity and background has informed who she is as a professional and her teaching style.

“Finding out one’s aspects of identity is essential for deep storytelling and further growth in diverse settings,” she concludes.